A while back I was having a conversation with a black man old enough to be my father. Up to a point, it was a very good conversation. We were talking about the state of the black family.
While I’m super open-minded to all the different ways anyone can have a family, there is a part of me that is Cosby Show, Huxtable-style old school, desiring to see more black families like the one I and my sisters, cousins, classmates grew up in – two parents, married, either both working or a father working and a stay-at-home mom. Old dreams die hard. No amount of Liberalism is ever going to make me let go of it, although I can understand why some would choose differently.
So this guy was appealing to my inner Huxtable, going on a rant about how he felt too many young black men were “selfish” and uninterested in settling down. I don’t like to hear anyone talk about anyone as a monolith, but I was curious to hear the rest of his perspective on this and asked him to continue. I asked him what he thought caused so many of the young men he encountered to be so disinterested in building up their families and communities and he said:
“It’s their mothers fault. You black women spoiled them and now they’re no good.”
*Record scratch* What?
Now, I understood his point. It’s not a new idea, the myth that black mothers raise their daughters but love their sons. It’s about as old as a Jet Magazine from 1975 on the exact same topic. But there’s a problem here. There’s a problem in all this fixation on what black women are doing – whether we are suddenly fat, suddenly unmarried, suddenly unattractive, suddenly victims or suddenly stubborn, angry and stupid – the fixation is on us. And it’s madly dysfunctional to attack the person who actually shows up to the party, takes it serious, picks out an outfit, and does their best to have a good time.
It’s easy to demand introspection, retrospection, comments and corrections out of someone who shows up. Meaning, of course you can have a lengthy discussion on whether or not black women do their sons a disservice in how they raise them. The elephant in the conversation is what did the father do? Oh wait, the assumption is he wasn’t there, right? Hence let’s all criticize only person who did show up to raise the child.
Dammit, woman! Can’t you do anything right?
This reminds me of a common family schism of the unmarried eldest child of whom all the siblings, parents, and relatives assume has nothing better to do but attend to the needs of the family. After all, they are unmarried and never moved away from home. Obviously, you stayed behind to look at all of us, they think, so let us heap upon you our expectations and scorn. Those who leave avoid the judgmental eye of our aging parents. But the child who stays to help out is forever derided and belittled no matter the worth of their works.
Yet, the family would fall apart if this child ever put their foot on and declared they had their own life, interests, ambitions and dreams that did not involve filling out their divorced mother’s weekly unemployment check questionnaire since mom is disinterested in learning how to use a computer.
Black women get attacked because we’re there. We’re visible. We aren’t going anywhere. And we are willing to entertain our faults. We are willing to discuss. We are invested in our families and communities and each other, so we show up, whether we want to be there or not, out of communal pride and obligation. We’ll raise our kids. We’ll raise OTHER people’s kids. We’ll put everyone through college and let grandpa set up his hospital bed in the living room. We’ll support you when you’re a community organizer. We’ll support you when you’re President of the United States. We’ll have your children, raise them, then get into a lengthy debate about whether or not we’re fat because we’re A) trying to keep the President of the United States interested in our sexy or B) because we don’t want to sweat out our perms.
We’ll have the conversation because we care. We read. We organize. We show up. Even if we hate the conversation. Even if we’re sick of it. Black women are ride-or-die for whatever the hell this is. Their family. Their career. Their sorority. Their neighborhood. Their church. If you go missing, you better hope some black women come looking for you, call Al Sharpton and organize a search, otherwise you’re just S-O-L. Everyone hates a black woman until they need one. That’s just how it goes. Come rescue me so as you’re saving my life I can complain about the quality of this rescue. Did you HAVE to come get me with that do-rag on your head? I know you just wear it so when you go to work your hair will look “nice,” but still, that’s really taking me out of the moment as you save my life. I can’t concentrate on the life saving while worrying about you securing moisture on your hair through a synthetic scarf.
But please wear that scarf. If your hair looks bad, that will take me out of it too. Just be perfect. Why can’t you do that, black woman? Damn.
In the 1965 play, “A Day of Absence,” all the black people in a town disappear, causing a panic. While these people were invisible to the majority white populace, they controlled so much of their lives that once gone, it was a terrifying prospect they couldn’t overcome. Black women, while seemingly invisible if you’re a TV executive creating a non-reality show based program, are highly visible in many other aspects of our lives – largely because they are so present. Yet the disregard, the conceit, the disrespect is still there. It’s so easy to criticize someone guaranteed to give you page views and hits, who will write books and buy books, act in films and then turn around and support them with their dollars, it’s easy to jump on the person who shows up. Because they’re real and they’re invested. They’re a wide swath of earth from whom mass media can greedily mine, because we will never stop writing, creating, consuming, and being invested. We will always want to know more about ourselves and each other. We will always criticize and question, damn and defend. Because we are present.
It would be a dull narrative for the media (and others) to talk about the reality of most black women, who love their friends and family members, who take good care of their kids, who have good jobs and live decent and law-abiding lives. How interesting is my story or my grandmothers’ story or your mothers’ story in a world that gets high of the schadenfreude of black woman misery – mainlining some “Precious” after snorting up some “Color Purple” then drowning us all in that “oh-its-so-sad” pity when most of our lives are full of joy in the face of all this navel-gazing stupidity.
Unfortunately, you wouldn’t get that from the many, many stories. They just focus on what’s wrong with us. But the only reason why these stories are so popular, the only reason why they move newspapers and theater tickets is because of something quite positive about black women, something that is what’s truly at the core of their questions and wonder –
There are so many things wrong with you, black woman, they say. Why don’t you just give up?
And somewhere some black woman indifferently shrugs and just shuffles on. Got no time to entertain such silly questions. Too much work to do.